Yesterday I wrote an article talking about how the Falcons offense needed to improve their touchdown percentage in the red zone. The Falcons needed to move the ball quickly an efficiently between the twenties, something they didn’t always do, and they certainly could have done more in the red zone as well. While there were two good long touchdown drives that showed this Falcons offense can really move the ball and impose their will with the no-huddle attack, too often they were held to three-and-outs. Much of this can be remedied, but it is still slightly demoralizing to leave plays on the field.
The first occasion that I saw this was on the Falcons second possession that came from Peyton Manning’s second interception of the day. The Falcons got the ball on the Denver 43, and took it to the 19-yard line. There Ryan threw two incomplete passes on well defended passes, bringing up a third & long. But this Falcons team is capable of scoring on one play in that situation. Julio Jones was lined up wide to the left side. He beat the jam by the defensive back and got a step behind him. At the same time Jones was beating the jam, Ryan tossed the ball over the defensive back’s head, into the middle of the end zone, in a perfect spot to let Julio simply bring the pass in. The perfect loft combined with Jones beating the jam was a match made in heaven. It made for a perfect throw and a very easy catch for a touchdown for Jones.
Only that wasn’t how the play finished. The catch would have been the easy part of the play. Rather than completing the easy touchdown grab essentially untouched by the defensive back, Jones bumbled the ball away and the pass fell incomplete. It went from potentially being a 14 point lead to a 10 point lead once the Falcons were forced to kick a field goal. This was just the first example of the Falcons leaving plays on the field, and it was a major one where the Falcons also left four points on the field.
Near the end of the first quarter, the Falcons ran the ball twice with Michael Turner, who gathered 7 yards on those two plays, bringing up a third & three situation for the Falcons. Who better to go to in that situation than Tony Gonzalez? Gonzalez comes from a slot receiver position over the middle, and is open. Ryan hits him, but Gonzalez can’t seem to reel the catch in. Another dropped pass on what seemed to be a very well thrown pass that would have moved the chains for the Falcons and at least given the defense more rest if it didn’t turn into points. Another huge missed opportunity.
That wasn’t the end of the drops for the Falcons. Gonzalez and Jones dropped another catch each, and all four of the dropped passes mentioned were on good passes where the receiver was the only player guilty of the drop. If those four passes are completed, things get much, much more productive for this Falcons offense. Luckily enough points were scored to win the game. Atlanta simply can’t survive as many three and outs or lack of ball movement as they did on Monday night.
There is some bright spots. Roddy White, a receiver who had a boat load of drops himself last season, looked as solid an on the same page as Matt Ryan as I have ever seen him. It was really highlighted by a third quarter pass when Ryan connected to White down the right sideline for a twenty yard gain on a back shoulder pass with CB Champ Bailey playing coverage. Its an accomplishment to complete a back shoulder pass, let alone that pass against a defensive back as good as Bailey. White looked fantastic.
The offensive line also was outstanding. I was extremely worried going into the game about our pass protection against Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. This is basically the same line that we intended to roll out in 2011 when we gave up a bunch of pressures, hits, and sacks. Maybe the play-calling is making a big difference. Matt Ryan’s ability to read the defense quickly and release the ball quickly also has to have something to do with it, as I saw Tyson Clabo get beat once badly by Von Miller, but get bailed out by Ryan’s delivery of the pass before the defender got there. But the rest of the line was solid if not stout. Sam Baker absolutely held Dumervil in check. He played really well. Blalock and McClure were as good as always. The weakest link continued to be right guard Garrett Reynolds, but even he didn’t play so miserably that Ryan got killed or proved to be a huge liability. The line did a good job of run and pass blocking.
A couple final notes. Michael Turner didn’t have a big day, but was once again productive enough to keep defenses honest and in the box, allowing for lanes to open up in the passing game. He tallied a rushing touchdown, and only 42 yards on 17 attempts, but the running game doesn’t need to be outstanding; it merely needs to be a threat to set up play-action passing and keep the rush off of the quarterback.
I’m also extremely impressed with Jacquizz Rodgers ability to pick up the blitz as a running back, and protect Matt Ryan. For a little guy, he sure delivers a powerful hit, and at least stops the blitzer if he doesn’t knock him back altogether. The ability to have a guy who catches the ball out of the backfield as well as he picks up the blitz is a huge attribute. He runs extremely strong between the tackles, but that isn’t his forte. He is an outstanding third down back, someone who can be useful and productive in the Falcons backfield for years to come.